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Shattered heritage

  • A view shows damaged shops in Al Khandaq street in Old Aleppo October 2, 2012. (REUTERS/Zain Karam)

  • A fire burns in shops in Bab al-Naser street in Old Aleppo October 2, 2012. (REUTERS/Zain Karam)

A debate has been raging since the weekend, when fires broke out and gutted the ancient souks of Aleppo, a United Nations-designated World Heritage site.

Residents of the Syrian city, the United Nations, and antiquities experts from around the world have lamented the destruction of historic sites and monuments in the magnificent city, whether through fire, gunshots, mortar rounds or strafing by aircraft.

Meanwhile, others have been complaining about all the commotion – they stress that human life is irreplaceable, and that more time should be spent on the loss of living, breathing people, instead of “stones.”

No one can deny that Syria’s tragedy is first and foremost one of people being tortured, wounded and killed, and yes, no one can bring these people back. Their lives are irreplaceable, but then again, so is history.

The fires that began to rage in Aleppo a few days ago weren’t a sudden case of the media latching on to a “new angle” in covering the bloodshed of the last 18 months.

Those concerned about antiquities, and history, have made repeated calls for the protection of heritage sites. Since the uprising broke out, these activists and officials have highlighted the fact that amid the chaos spreading in Syria, valuable items have been looted from museums and presumably sent straight to the black market.

The concern with antiquities and history in Syria is not a strictly “national” issue. Aleppo is one of only four cities in the Islamic world, which numbers more than 1 billion people, which truly stands out for its architecture – the others being Isfahan, Cairo and Fez.

Syria’s history is Islamic, and pre-Islamic. It is important for Jews, Christians and Muslims. It is the world’s museum to a degree perhaps unmatched anywhere else. It claims to be the birthplace of the alphabet, and has at least three cities – Damascus, Homs and Aleppo – that claim to be the world’s longest continuously inhabited cities. John the Baptist’s head is buried in Damascus, only a few hundred meters from the tomb of Saladin.

The concern with safeguarding Syria’s antiquities shouldn’t be considered a luxury, or a case of overlooking human tragedy. The simple fact is that millions of people from around the world visit Syria, and not in search of casinos and resorts. They go to see the world’s history, and when the conflict eventually ends in Syria, they will want to return. The failure to protect heritage sites from theft and destruction will only add to Syria’s already-heavy burden as it begins the long process of reconstruction and recovery.

In a country such as Syria, old stones aren’t just old stones. They generate significant levels of economic activity, and represent the irreplaceable historical legacy of human civilization, not just of Syria.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 03, 2012, on page 7.
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